Washington: Brains in a state of relaxation are better able to learn new languages faster, according to a recent study.
Scientists at the University of Washington demonstrated that a five-minute measurement of resting-state brain activity predicted how quickly adults picked up a second language.
"This is vital brain function research that could enable the military to develop a more effective selection process of those who can learn languages quickly," said Researcher Dr Ray Perez, adding "This is especially critical to the intelligence community, which needs linguists fluent in a variety of languages, and must find such individuals rapidly."
Study author Dr Chantel Prat wrote that the way someone's brain functions while at rest predicts 60 percent of their capacity for learning a second language.
For the experiments, 19 participants, adults between the ages of 18 and 31, with no previous experience learning French, visited Prat's lab twice weekly over eight weeks for 30-minute French lessons delivered through an immersive, virtual-reality computer program called Operational Language and Cultural Training System (OLCTS).
The OLCTS is designed to make military personnel proficient in a foreign language after 20 hours of training. The self-paced program guides users through a series of scenes and stories. A voice-recognition component enables users to check their pronunciation.
To ensure experiment participants were progressing well, the researchers used periodic quizzes that required a minimum score before proceeding to the next lesson. The quizzes also served as measures for how quickly participants moved through the curriculum.
For five minutes before and after the eight-week curriculum, Prat had participants sit still, close their eyes, breathe deeply and wear an EEG (electroencephalogram) headset measuring resting-state brain activity from the cerebral cortex--an area of the brain crucial to memory, attention and perception.
"The brain waves we recorded reflect synchronized firing of large networks of neurons," said Prat. "We found that the larger the networks were in 'beta' frequencies [brain frequencies associated with language and memory], the faster our participants learned French."
However, Prat is quick to point out that language learning rates were the only things predicted by the recorded brain activity. Participants with smaller "beta" networks still learned the material to which they were exposed equally well.
"There's more that goes into learning a new language than speed," said Prat. "You also have to factor in motivation, study habits and practice methods."
The study appears in journal Brain and Language....